AUBURN, Ala. -- Bruce Pearl accidentally scheduled himself three different meetings at the same time on Tuesday afternoon. Auburn's new coach, hired March 18, has no shortage of tasks right now -- but recruiting is not one of them. Due to his NCAA show-cause penalty, which kept the former Tennessee coach off the sidelines for three seasons and does not expire until Aug. 24, Pearl, 54, cannot have contact with recruits, no small hindrance when trying to upgrade a roster that returns just two players that scored more than 3.0 points per game for last year's 14-16 team. Auburn, which has not reached the NCAA tournament since 2003, went 18-50 in the SEC under former coach Tony Barbee and averaged 5,823 fans per home game. But Pearl's arrival has generated more excitement for Tigers basketball than at any time since at least the days of 1999 SI cover boy Chris Porter.
I sat down with Pearl during a visit to campus earlier this week.
SI.com: When you were hired, it seemed like one day I was listening to you break down NCAA bubble teams on XM Radio, the next day you're a coach again. Did you really flip the switch that quickly?
Pearl: I didn't see it coming this year. The show-cause isn't up until August 2014, and I really didn't know what the response would be about my return given my exit. When [AD] Jay Jacobs called me on a Thursday night, I was in Bristol. Conference tournaments are going on, I'm working at ESPN. I'm doing XM Radio. He asked if I'd have some interest in talking about the Auburn job. I always have believed that it doesn't hurt to listen, right? Again, I'm thinking, this isn't happening for another year, is it? Jay came out to Bristol on Friday and we visited. He didn't talk about whether this was the right time, he talked about whether this was the right place. And once we both got to the fact that in the SEC, in a place like Auburn, I agreed with him, this was the right place. Together, we would deal with whether this was the right time.
SI.com: I'm a little surprised to hear you say you didn't think it would be this year because the public clamoring was already heating up, the petition from Tennessee fans and all that.
Pearl: Yeah, but understand the difference between fans and friends, and athletic directors and presidents. I did the best I could to be accountable and accepting of my penalty and ask for forgiveness and grace and serve my time. But I just didn't know how it would be received. I'm humbled and grateful that Jay has given me an opportunity to get back in and do what I've done for the last 33 years.
SI.com: When you were at Tennessee and you would play here, did you think to yourself, why isn't this place better?
Pearl: No. I had been asked months ago on a radio show, what are the top five or six jobs in the SEC? I said Kentucky and Florida, Tennessee, Missouri, Arkansas and Vanderbilt, maybe. So I did not place Auburn in the upper half of our league. And it isn't. But the athletic program is -- clearly. So that gave me confidence that if Auburn can be good in all these other sports, why can't they be good at men's basketball? You look at this facility [four-year old Auburn Arena], it's one of the nicest facilities in the country. It is. Brand new, unbelievable venue, phenomenal practice facilities. It's all here. Hopefully I can assemble a staff that can coach these guys up, bring in better and better players and we can become relevant in the world of college basketball -- again. And that's an important point -- again. Auburn's got some history. There's a guy who's on TNT every weekend [Charles Barkley] who's a living, breathing, walking example of what this place can do. He is an amazing ambassador for this university and our basketball program. He understands there's something special about the Auburn family. And Chuck Person -- he was The Rifleman!
SI.com: How important was it to land Chuck for your staff?
Pearl: People are like oh, it's a no-brainer, if Chuck Person wants to come work for you, it's a no-brainer. But that's not why I hired him. I hired him because he can really teach, and he can really coach, and he's going to make our players better. And he wants to be here, and he remembers what Auburn basketball should look like. He's got a burning desire to see to it that it does look like what it's supposed to. I'm really pleased that we got Chuck.
SI.com: And you're reunited with Tony Jones, your top assistant at Tennessee. I assume you'd kept in close touch?
Pearl: Oh yeah. Tony was a high school coach in Knoxville for a couple of years. It pained me a great deal that some of the decisions that I had made cost us dearly. A lot of families were affected. But I was a head coach for 19 years. Eighteen-and-a-half of them were pretty good. We've done a lot of good things that I'm really proud of. But, obviously I'm responsible for making better decisions than I did. It's great to get [Jones] back.
SI.com: Well because of those decisions you're here in an unusual situation. You obviously need players. You need to recruit -- but you can't recruit. So how are you managing that?
Pearl: Because I can't recruit, I can't even really talk about recruiting. I'm sensitive to how I even answer the question. But, I've been a head coach for 19 years. We've been to 17 NCAA tournaments, nine Sweet 16s, three Elite Eights, finished second one year and won a national championship in Division II. Our coaches can speak to that. These fans are passionate and hungry. We've got a great recruiting base as far as where we're located. And now I'm selling Auburn football. I'm selling no-huddle, playing fast. I'm selling, look at what Coach Malzahn and his staff have been able to do. Come be a part of that. Will it be difficult for a prospect to make up his mind to come here when he can't talk to me? Yeah. It's going to be challenging. But they can watch me coach, they can talk to people who have played for me.
SI.com: So if a recruit comes on campus this weekend, do you have to leave the building?
Pearl: Last weekend, we had an official visit on campus. And I left town. I went to the lake.
game. I'm going to stay in town. I'm going to have a compliance person with me the entire time. I've got some functions to perform [at the game] as the head men's basketball coach, but I'm not going to come in the [basketball] building. And I'm going to do everything I can to try not to bump into one of our prospects. I hope that by being diligent in this compliance I'm sending several messages, one to Auburn and their leadership, that we're going to do everything we can to try to do it within the show-cause.
SI.com: Are you allowed to watch film [of recruits]?
Pearl: Oh yes. And believe me, who we're talking to, who we're visiting, oh yeah. I just can't have contact with prospects or coaches, recruiting services, anybody. Let's say my phone rings and it's an AAU coach -- and I've got hundreds of them in my phone. A lot of them have called and said hey, congratulations, welcome back. Within the first 10-15 seconds I'm letting them all know that I appreciate their call and their best wishes, but I can't talk to then until Aug. 24. Talk to Coach Person, talk to Coach Jones.
SI.com: What are the other priorities right now?
Pearl: The only priority is to take the 8-9 guys we have returning and have them look different. Have them play differently. Have them make progress. It's one of the things I'm going to ask our fans to pay attention to. Because we are going to win here, but I don't know how quickly. But I do want them to be able to see a difference in the players. I can tell you we've been out there every Monday and Friday morning at 6 a.m. working out.
SI.com: All in all, what's it like to be back?
Pearl: I'm going to like living here. My family's going to like living here. Great people. And I do think this could be a great basketball program again.
SI.com: If somebody asked you the question now about the top jobs in the SEC, would you give a different answer?
Pearl: No, same answer. But that's why we're here. To change that.